Cook County soda tax's wounds are permanent, some businesses say
Vijay Patel says the short-lived Cook County sweetened beverage tax, which expired Friday, probably had a permanent negative effect on business at the Subway restaurant he manages at the southwest corner of Lake-Cook and Arlington Heights roads in Arlington Heights.
Being so close to the Lake County border, Patel said the tax's impact on his business was inevitable.
"Nobody wanted to pay extra money," Patel said. "All my customers have gone to Lake County."
Amid backlash from retailers in the form of TV ads and lawsuits, the county board voted in October to overturn a tax that had gone into effect a little more than two months before. County board President Toni Preckwinkle supported the tax as a way to fill a $200 million budget hole. After the 15-2 repeal vote, the county board later approved a budget that calls for about 300 job cuts.
While Patel tried to compensate this fall with such efforts as a buy-one, get-one promotion, he didn't think the expiration of the tax would bring him immediate relief.
"Once customers are gone, they never come back," he said. "It's very hard. We are struggling."
But customers who did visit the Subway Friday morning said they'd never been bothered by or sensitive to the tax.
"I'm a big juice drinker and I'll buy it no matter what it costs," laughed Rayshawnna Fletcher of Harvey. "I know that's bad."
She didn't even mind being accidentally overcharged 40 cents Friday because the cash register set up to administer the penny-per-ounce tax for the past few months was still doing so after the tax had officially expired.
Once the error was caught, Patel began working to correct it while his staff manually refunded customers the overcharge.
Fellow customer Jeff Mason said he'd been so in favor of the tax that he put the 21 cents he'd been accidentally overcharged for a buddy's soda in the restaurant's coin jar.
"I thought it was a great idea," Mason said, pointing to the water he got for himself. "You have to teach people. You have to know how much sugar is in those things. If you saw it, you wouldn't drink it."
At Frankies Fast Food in Mount Prospect, meanwhile, Katherine Pedraza and co-worker Dennis Sullivan were enjoying sodas with their lunch Friday.
Both Pedraza, drinking a medium Pepsi, and Sullivan, having a large Diet Pepsi, had Dec. 1 circled on their calendars as the soda tax's last day.
Both work in retail at the nearby Walmart Supercenter on Rand Road, where customers complained that they couldn't purchase and pick up online orders of sweetened beverages. Walmart's app couldn't adjust for the penny-per-ounce tax, so Cook County stores had to remove any type of soda, flavored water or sports drink from the online system.
"I'm sure we lost people when we couldn't do that tax," said Pedraza, a department manager. "I've been counting down the days until it goes away."
Tom Zoumaras, owner of Submarine Express in downtown Mount Prospect, welcomed the end of the tax. Not only did customers change their purchasing habits -- opting for water instead of pop in many cases, he said -- but Pepsi also charged him extra for large bag-in-box syrups for his soda dispenser.
"I'm glad it's over," Zoumaras said. "There's a better way to tax people than with a soda pop tax."
To account for the extra tax, Zoumaras and other employees working the register would have to push an extra button to tack on the tax.
Gary Brown, manager of Garibaldi's Italian Eatery in Arlington Heights, said he never thought the tax affected his business much because its free-refill policy didn't change.
"We raised the price of the drinks to help us pay for the tax," Brown said. "The worst part was Pepsi was charging us a tax and then we were charging someone else a tax."
But after months of a regular drink costing 30 cents more at $2.29, the menu board was revised in time for opening Friday to show $1.99 again.